12 November 2008

October Book Report

Last month, I only managed to read three books. "Only" because two of them really qualified as novellas, so you'd think I would have read more. But I was busy with holiday knitting projects, a lot of running around, and a killer of a cold that of course turned into bronchitis, meaning little sleep and coughing fits that made it hardly worth trying to follow the plot of a book!

My first read was Washington Square, by Henry James. I mainly read this because it was in the same volume as Daisy Miller, which I had read in September. I figured if they were both there, I'd read both before returning the borrowed book.

Washington Square refers to the New York City address of a doctor whose wife dies young, leaving him with a daughter to raise. He invites his sister to move in with them, and help raise the daughter. I loved the descriptions of the houses and the different areas of New York City from the 19th century. As is often the case, I was frustrated by the social limitations placed on women during that time, as well as their unwillingness/inability to speak for themselves.

The story deals with the daughter as a young adult, meeting and falling in love with a cousin of the man that her cousin is going to marry. As time goes on, she becomes more and more enamored of him, with her aunt encouraging them both, and the father disapproving. The daughter will inherit a nice estate upon her father's death, and because he disapproves of her young man, her father threatens to disinherit her if she marries him. In the meantime, it's clear that the gentleman suitor is not the most admirable character. Catherine's refusal to marry him, and the resulting life she leads before they meet again years later, did not surprise me based on the rest of the story.

The saddest thing is that it wasn't until I reached the end, that I realized it was the book upon which the play "The Heiress" was based, which I had actually seen on Broadway with Cherry Jones in the leading role a few years back. I enjoyed the play much more than the book, I have to say, and I think because the actors supplied nuance and visual cues that I could just not get from the book.

Next up, an enjoyable novella: The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett. This was the last book on my list for the Novella Challenge, which officially ended in September, but I wanted to read the book anyhow, so I just continued.

The premise of the book is that one day when Queen Elizabeth is out with her corgis, they run off the beaten path, and she finds them near a mobile library on the palace grounds. She enters, and is surprised to see just what it is. One of the kitchen employees, who is a regular, comes in, and he and the librarian discuss what he has been reading, etc. The Queen feels obliged to borrow a book, and as the story continues, she finds that she really enjoys reading.

What I enjoyed most about the story was the reactions of those around her to her newfound love of reading. They are puzzled, and often annoyed, by her literary references, and her questions regarding what they may have read, and why. The book opens with a scene where she is sitting next to the President of France at a dinner party, and asks him a question about Balzac. The President's internal dialogue of dread really amused me.

Another aspect that intrigued me was the discussion about the limitations on what the Queen can/should do or not do. For instance, the statement is made that she cannot in any way say that one thing is her favorite, since as Queen she is not supposed to be partial. Whenever she mentions to her aides that a certain book is her new favorite, they plead with her to not tell anyone else, since it would cause all kinds of problems. This is just not something that ever occurred to me prior to reading this book, even though it makes a certain amount of sense. (Admittedly, I spend no time pondering the Queen or her life, so perhaps this struck me more than it would some others.)

Finally, I got around to reading a book that my co-worker, Eileen, loaned to me a while back, called Things You Get for Free, by Michael McGirr. The author details a trip he took with his mother after the death of his father. At the time, he was a Jesuit priest, and it was his way of helping his mother deal with her husband's death, while giving him a chance to get to know her, and some family history, a little bit better.

The title refers to his mother's love of getting something for free - whether it be the free bottles of shampoo in a hotel room, or an extra excursion on their trip if they book by a certain date. As they visit different places in Europe, coming from Australia, McGirr learns how his parents met, how they were as young people before having children, and he meets relatives that he has only ever heard about in passing. Both parents having been rather reserved and self-sufficient, he is surprised to learn about their feelings and their experiences.

There is also an exploration on his part of how he really felt about his father, and how he is dealing with his father's death. His version of events and places as compared to his mother's reactions during the trip are also interesting, as he sees himself on something akin to a pilgrimage, while she is finally taking a trip that had to be postponed when she was a young married woman, ready to explore the world.

I also enjoyed McGirr's comments and observations about the other tourists in their group. The group is international, and this makes for interesting conversations between his mother and the others, as well as her later comments to him when they are alone. (I can tell you that young women from New Jersey take quite a beating in this book!)

Not the best book I've ever read, but enjoyable.

At the moment, I am not signed up for any more reading challenges, and as of today, have not been able to decide on one single next thing to read! I have been catching up on magazines in the meantime, but right now, I'm not sure what I'm in the mood to read next ... decisions, decisions!


Chris said...

The Uncommon Reader sounds intriguing.

I would be twitching terribly if I didn't have a book in progress. :)

teabird said...

Uncommon reader sounds wonderful - it goes on my list (which has grown to circle the earth 72 1/2 times, but I don't let it faze me)

Lorraine said...

Bridget- Washington Square sounds interesting.

And sometimes I feel sorry for the Queen. She can't live like an ordinary person.

Mr Puffy's Knitting Blog: said...

The book about the queen sounds very amusing! Your book reports are a delight to read (I even poured myself a fresh cup of tea when I saw the post was a book report) :)

You are far more sophisticated in your tastes than I - so you'll have to get a book recommendation from someone else I'm afraid.

Anonymous said...

You know, if I were closer, I'd smack you. "Only" three books. . . Seriously?

Anonymous said...

First of all, I am shocked - shocked! that you do not ponder the trials of being queen on an ongoing basis. Secondly, the play does sound like it wouuld be better than the book. Thirdly, I finished The Optimist's Daughter last night - you're right, I really enjoyed it.

Ally Jay said...

The books all sound well worth reading.

Anonymous said...

I felt like An Uncommon Reader's ending was very abrupt. What did you think?

And although I'm not sure that the time periods exactly overlap, I feel like Henry Miller and Edith Wharton write about similar sorts of people and places. And I agree with you about the frustration of women's roles. Sometimes I want to throw those books against the wall to knock some sense into the characters!